Australia's dairy industry could capitalise on market access advantages, benchmarking opportunities and genuine welfare advancement, if it adopted an animal welfare assessment program. That's according to a report released today by Nuffield Australia penned by 2021 Nuffield Scholar Lucy Collins. As part of her scholarship, Ms Collins travelled for 136 days, through nine countries, visiting more than 100 farms. She investigated global welfare practices and assurances schemes on a scholarship supported by the Gardiner Foundation. After benchmarking Australia's existing animal welfare regulations against other countries, Ms Collins found that while dairy farmers, by and large, did the "right" thing and had animal welfare front of mind, the regulatory framework let the system down. "Data shows 79 per cent of Australians feel supportive of dairy farmers, but just over one quarter still believe Australian dairy farmers do not do a good job of caring for their animals," Ms Collins said. She recommends the industry commit to transparency measures to improve on these figures. "Adequate financial resourcing, ongoing stakeholder collaboration and consultation, appropriate data utilisation and a commitment to continuous improvement will be key to realising the benefits of any assurance program," she said. "Any welfare assessment framework should aspire to remain open to incorporating new knowledge, scientific or regulatory advancements and emerging citizen concerns. "Collaboration, transparency, and a shared vision for animal welfare are essential for improving trust in Australia's dairy industry." Ms Collins became acutely aware of this need during a visit to a poultry farm in the Netherlands. "The people behind Kipster set out to design an egg 'that even a vegan would eat'," she said. "Despite being neither organic nor free-range, Kipster received the highest attainable quality seal from the Dutch Society for Animal Protection. "Its facilities are open to the public and offer interactive and educational community spaces. "The visit to Kipster left my mind spinning with possibilities for improved public engagement with dairy farming in Australia and questioning whether our own industry's positive story around circularity could be better amplified." Her Nuffield journey kicked off when one of her clients failed a processor's animal welfare audit (which was based on an overseas program), despite Ms Collins considering the farmer to be a good operator. Ms Collins, a dairy veterinarian and farmer herself, applied for the Nuffield scholarship to investigate further. "After some research I was shocked to discover the number of assessment programs in existence around the world, and that we didn't already have one here beyond the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines." Ms Collins wanted to understand whether these programs changed welfare outcomes for cows on participating farms and successfully aligned with the priorities of both farmers and the public. She was also interested in whether the farmers required to take on the increased audit burden to achieve compliance perceived the programs as being fair. Her goal was to understand the opportunities and challenges of welfare assurance, and to consider the feasibility of a farmer-led approach in Australia. "It is time the Australian dairy industry got real about welfare assurance and had a whole-of-supply-chain conversation about our aspirations for the future," she said. "While there are some mandatory and some voluntary animal welfare industry policies already in place, the implementation of a dedicated program would provide a more systematic and structured approach to assessing and improving cow welfare and offer farmers the ability to benchmark." Ms Collins's full report can be downloaded at https://www.nuffieldscholar.org/reports/au/2021/well-and-fair-investigating-dairy-welfare-programs-around-world.